WaPo’s Downie: Editor Job Like Conducting ‘Really Great Orchestra’

Calling his 17 years as executive editor of The Washington Post “the equivalent of being the conductor of a really great orchestra,” Leonard Downie Jr. said Monday that he chose to retire because the paper faces “a very challenging time,” and that “it’s time” for him to step down.

Downie, 66, spoke to E&P less than an hour after informing staffers of his decision to depart from the editor’s chair on Sept. 8. When asked if he was being forced out by Publisher Katharine Weymouth, who took over earlier this year, he said, “We arrived at it together. I stated in my talk to the staff, this is a very challenging time for the paper, we have a young publisher with a lot of new ideas and she needs a young editor with a lot of new ideas.”

Added Downie, “I have done a lot here, I can’t even imagine some of the things that will need to be done…it is time.” When asked about his replacement, he declined to offer any suggestions or speculation, stating: “Katharine has been conducting the search, she and I confer regularly about the future, but that is her bailiwick.”

Weymouth said Monday only that a replacement would be named sometime soon. Downie’s departure, which will include his taking the position of vice president at large, comes at a bittersweet time for him and the paper.

With six Pulitzer prizes won in April, the most ever in one year by the Post, Downie’s Pulitzer tally reached 25. At the same time, he has had to oversee the loss of more than 100 news staffers in a major buyout that included the loss of several top writers.

“There are so many challenges,” Downie said about the paper’s present and future demands. “An integration with the Internet and continuing to produce compelling journalism in a crowded field.”

Noting he has a novel coming out next January titled “Rules of the Game,” Downie said he would likely write another one and perhaps other books. He said he plans to take Ben Bradlee’s 7th floor office, which Bradlee had occupied since leaving the executive editor post in 1991 and becoming an editor at large as well. Bradlee has taken another office on a higher floor.

“I intend to write a lot,” Downie said. “I have some other things I want to write. I definitely want to write another novel.” But he said a newspaper column is not likely: “I’m not an opinion type. It is not my nature.”

Asked about his proudest achievement as top editor, Downie said “the way in which I was able to build on the base that Ben Bradlee created, quality for our readers and accountability journalism.”

He also cited the three Public Service Pulitzers the paper won under his leadership. “In a daily newspaper, there are lots of things every day,” he added about the accomplishments. “Many could be hard. What to publish, and how to publish it. How to deploy your staff.”

Downie said he would miss “the daily deadlines, which are the bane and reward of the business,” but added, “There are also a lot of administrative duties to running a newsroom I won